Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In Tirra Lirra by the River, expatriate Australian Nora Roche Porteous comes back to suburban Brisbane to live out her days in her family home after forty-five years away. She arrives with pneumonia, and alternating between the present and the past, she ends up reconstructing and restoring her sense of self. Spinning her “globe of memory” so that even its dark side is no longer hidden, Nora reviews her lifelong quest for self-acceptance, self-knowledge, and freedom, a journey often foiled by the oppressive requirements of the traditional female role.

Now in her seventies, Nora remembers herself as an imaginative girl, whose embroideries earned high praise though she did not think much of them at the time. Restless and unhappy, an outsider in her provincial hometown, she escapes through relentless walking and through her imagination. An avid reader, she recites Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Lady of Shallot,” from which the book’s title is taken. Through the distortion of a cheap piece of window glass, she envisions her own Camelot in her backyard, complete with a dim, grief-filled memory of Lancelot. After her friend Olive Partridge inherits enough money to leave Brisbane, Nora’s vision of other, better worlds nudges her into marriage with Colin Porteous. Thinking that she is leaving behind stodgy, rule-bound tradition, she moves with him to Sydney. Like the Lady of Shallot, however, Nora dies many times over in the world of reality.


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Tirra Lirra by the River Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The most highly regarded of Anderson’s novels, Tirra Lirra by the River won the Miles Franklin Award and the Australian Natives Association Literature Award. Feminists praised the book as a paradigm of the oppressiveness of the lives of women born early in the twentieth century. Women had to face the tyrannies of place, patriarchal marriage and family, illegal abortion, and ideals of youthful feminine beauty. Like those women, Nora has no role models to follow should her search for herself fall outside the traditional boundaries of women’s sphere. Her marriage, shipboard affair, job, and life at Number Six are Nora’s attempts to find her way within those narrow boundaries. The consequences of her choices are sometimes disastrous—the abortion nearly kills her, the facelift makes her face an unnatural mask. When she does connect with some deeper part of herself, as when she awakens sexually, she is slapped down by those enforcing her traditional role.

Alongside Nora, four other female characters depict various options for women’s lives early in the century. Dorothy Irey marries a doctor and lives in “the best home in the street,” but the public facade conceals Dorothy’s rage against her stultifying domestic role, which explodes when she kills her husband, her children, and herself. Dorothy needed the freedom that a larger life would provide, which Nora was seeking in her travels. Olive Partridge—who leaves Brisbane, becomes a...

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Tirra Lirra by the River Bibliography

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Baker, Candida. Yacker 2: Australian Writers Talk About Their Work. Sydney: Pan Books, 1987. A collection of interviews with contemporary Australian authors, including Anderson. The interview touches on Anderson’s life, her writing technique, Australian nationalism, and expatriation.

Barry, Elaine. “The Expatriate Vision of Jessica Anderson.” Meridian 3, no. 1 (1984): 3-11. Explores Anderson’s use of the theme of expatriation in five of her novels as a vehicle for social satire and as a metaphor for the plight of society’s outsider, especially for the life of the artist.

Ellison, Jennifer, ed. Rooms of Their Own. Victoria, Australia: Penguin Books, 1986. A collection of interviews with Australian women writers, including Anderson. The author reveals biographical information and discusses her literary influences, as well as the character of Nora in Tirra Lirra by the River.

Gallagher, Donat. “Tirra Lirra by the Brisbane River.” Literature in North Queensland. 10 (1981): 101-110. A generally favorable review of Anderson’s novel, exploring themes of memory and imagination and the author’s use of various symbols to layer the meaning of the narrative.

Haynes, Roslynn D. “Art as Reflection in Jessica Anderson’s Tirra Lirra by the River.” Australian Literary Studies 12 (May, 1986): 316-323. Focuses on the theme in Tirra Lirra by the River connected with the poem “The Lady of Shallot” as a reflection of Anderson’s belief that art represents intense emotions and that experiences can be created only after the artist has achieved emotional distance.

Sykes, Alrene. “Jessica Anderson: Arrivals and Places.” Southerly 46 (March, 1986): 57-71. Examines arrivals as representative of characters’ inner journeys and the comparisons between Australia and Europe in five of Anderson’s novels, including Tirra Lirra by the River.

Willbanks, Ray. Australian Writers and Their Work. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991. A collection of interviews with sixteen contemporary authors. Willbanks’ introduction outlines his ideas on current trends in Australian fiction. The interview with Anderson offers both biographical information and a discussion of her writing.

Willbanks, Ray. “The Strength to Be Me: The Protagonist in the Fiction of Jessica Anderson.” SPAN: Journal of the South Pacific Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies 27 (October, 1988): 58-63. Compares several female characters in three of Anderson’s works, including Tirra Lirra by the River. Willbanks suggests that each is an outsider figure—strong but alienated from male-dominated societies.